Bread for the Poor

The history of potatoes has been largely driven by God-fearing growers.

Published online: Jan 06, 2018 Articles Hielke “Henry” De Jong
Viewed 876 time(s)

This article appears in the January 2018 issue of Potato Grower. 


After the potato’s introduction in Europe, several different religious groups, including Anabaptists, played a major role in the dissemination and cultivation of the potato. Those who were persecuted because of their faith especially learned to rely on the potato in their time of need. This in turn led to the potato often being considered “the bread for the poor.”

 

Monasteries, botanical gardens and herbals

The first record of the potato being grown on the European continent is from 1573, when potatoes were noted on a list of purchases made by a Carmelite hospital in Sevilla, Spain. In 1578, while exiled by her religious opponents to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, Spain, Teresa of Avila received a food package from the monastery in Sevilla that included potatoes. In 1584, the same Carmelite order founded a monastery in Genova, Italy; they probably brought potatoes with them.

For a couple centuries, the potato was confined to monasteries and botanical gardens in Europe and to descriptions in several herbals, books containing explanations of various plants’ medicinal values. There were several reasons for the reluctance to grow or eat potatoes. First among them is that it was not mentioned in the Bible and was therefore not believed to be a food designed by God for human consumption.

The central figure in the botanical world of the day was Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), who established an imperial botanical garden in Vienna. In 1588, Clusius received two tubers from the Papal Legate in Belgium, who called them by the Italian name of taratouffli.

 

Waldensians

It has been suggested that it was the Waldensian farmers in the mountainous area of the Piedmont in northern Italy who were the source of the tubers that eventually reached Clusius in Vienna. Because of religious persecution, the Waldensians often withdrew to relatively inaccessible areas, where they became very skilled farmers. Waldensian leader Henry Arnaud (1641-1721) led his fellow believers from Italy to southern Germany. Arnaud grew potatoes in his parish garden of Schönenberg and distributed them throughout the Waldensian colony there.

 

Edict of Nantes Revocation

In France, progressive Protestant farmers were protected by the Edict of Nantes issued in 1598. However, under the slogan “one king, one law, one faith,” the Edict was revoked in 1685. The subsequent persecution of religious minorities resulted in mass emigration of some of the best French farmers, who left with their agricultural know-how, including potato cultivation. The more tolerant countries to which these Protestant farmers moved (primarily in northern Europe) benefited at the expense of France.

 

Quaker and Presbyterian immigrants in North America

In 1685, when William Penn described Pennsylvania to potential immigrants, he included Irish potatoes in a list of crops that did well there. In 1719, a group of Scottish Presbyterian immigrants from Northern Ireland settled in Londonderry, N.H.; among the goods they brought with them was the potato.

 

Mormon pioneers

After its founding in 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was persecuted in the U.S. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, they moved west to the Salt Lake Valley, where they immediately established farms. Young’s history states that on July 24, 1847, “at about noon, the five-acre potato patch was plowed when the brethren commenced planting their seed potatoes.” A search for more land led them to Idaho. By 1875, the Mormons were shipping potatoes to California—a San Francisco newspaper called them “Brigham’s potatoes.”

 

Clergy contributions

During the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, Miles Joseph Berkeley, a priest and deacon in the Church of England, actively participated in a debate about the cause of late blight. At the time, it was thought that diseases were caused by spontaneous generation rather than by micro-organisms. In his 1846 publication, Berkeley described how he had observed the fungus microscopically on potato leaves; it was revolutionary thinking to suggest this might be the cause of the disease.

In the decades following the Irish famine, there was a flurry of activity in finding new cultivars or varieties in Europe and North America that would be resistant to late blight. As new cultivars came to the market, there were unrealistic expectations that they would deliver great results to the farming community. This in turn drove up the price of seed potatoes of new cultivars—in the U.S., one new cultivar fetched $50 per tuber in 1869. Henry Ward Beecher mused that “Prospectors, with pick and pan, may do very well in the Rocky Mountains, but the true way to dig for gold in New York State is to let your potatoes do it for you.”

New York Episcopalian minister Chauncey E. Goodrich, whom Beecher called “the pioneer and patriarch of the new kingdom of potatoes,” was devoted to finding a cure for late blight and spared no effort or expense toward this end. One of his seedlings, Garnet Chili, features prominently in the pedigrees of most North American and many European cultivars.

Henry H. Spalding was a Presbyterian missionary working with the Nez Perce people of the Pacific Northwest. In 1837, in order to diversify the food supply of the Nez Perce, Spalding was the first to grow potatoes in Idaho.

 

Mennonite potato pioneers

  • Jacques Klopfenstein (1763-1841). Klopfenstein, a Mennonite who operated a large farm, published an agricultural almanac from 1812 to 1845, entitled L’Anabaptiste ou le Cultivateur par Expérience, in which he advised on livestock and many crops, including potatoes.
  • Johann Cornies (1789-1848). Cornies introduced potatoes in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. Many Russian and Ukrainian farmers were sent by the government to the Mennonite settlements to learn how to grow potatoes.
  • Kroeker Farms. Abram A. Kroeker was the son of Mennonite immigrants who immigrated to Manitoba from Ukraine in 1876. Today, the family farm is one of Canada’s leading potato producers.
  • Edward G. Snyder (1905-1991). From very humble beginnings, Snyder, a devoted Mennonite, experimented with making potato chips in a large iron kettle on the kitchen stove in his home. Initially, Snyder’s potatoes were peeled by hand and salted from hand shakers. The public demand for his chips led him to build a factory that eventually became part of the multinational Frito-Lay company.

 

It is clear that potato growers of faith have been major contributors to the success of the potato. In periods of dire need, the potato has time and again served as bread for the poor.

 

Hielke De Jong is a retired potato research scientist from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick. De Jong acknowledges with appreciation the review and comments provided by Alf Redekopp on an early draft of this article.